Are you a threat? Or a treat? Make the most of your first impression

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New in town? Make the most out of your first impression.

New in town, to the job or in the country, and you need to build trust, rapport and credibility fast. The mechanism of a first impression is the same across all cultures, though the details and execution differ. In this article we’ll look at the basic anatomy of first impressions, and how you can learn to adapt the first impression you make to the culture you’re in.

Are you a threat? Or a treat?

My first graduate paper at the American University of Beirut discussed at length how the Israelis considered the Palestinians a treat. Or maybe not. A friend gently pointed out the missing “h” that rather redefined my thesis…

Some smart people at Princeton University have looked at how first impressions and stereotypes are shaped and have come up with the Warmth/Competency Framework.

In short, we judge people based on the two dimensions of warmth and competency. “Warmth” being the intent we judge people to have towards us, and “competency” being the ability to act on that intention. Does this person have potentially negative intentions towards us and is he or she able to act on that intention?

These judgments take place within less than a microsecond. They have to, to help us survive. And these mechanisms have helped us survive since we lived in caves. If I’m walking in a dark alley and I see a big, bulky man walking straight towards me, I don’t have the time to think about whether this person could be a potential threat or not. On the warmth/competency scale I judge him as low on warmth, and high on competency. I.e. with a possible negative intention, but with the entire competency in the world to act on it. Of course, I don’t know that for sure, but first impressions are superficial, it’s in their very nature.

On the other hand, if I see a smiling old lady with a sheet of cookies, I would deem her intentions to be warm, and her competency to act on the intention (give me cookies) to be high. My first impression will be a very positive one.

Am I overusing stereotypes? Yes. But that’s just what first impressions are. In the diagram you can see what we feel towards people falling into the different categories, either high or low on competency, warmth or both.

First impressions quadrant

First impressions quadrant

Three lessons on first impressions

1 – First impressions are purely superficial and not a judgment of who you are and what’s in your heart. Things like what you wear, your gender, size, posture, skin colour and age all have an impact on first impressions. Like it or not, gender is often the thing that has the most impact as it influences how we judge warmth and competence. All of these variables have different connotations depending on culture and situation. You need to observe and see what impact your own appearance makes on the people you meet. Most of these you cannot do much about, such as your skin colour, height and gender, but much can be compensated against with what you wear, your posture and behaviour.

2 – First impressions don’t wait for you to be made. A first impression is made as soon as you enter a room, as soon as someone lays their eyes on you, as soon as you appear. A first impression won’t wait for you to deem it convenient to engage with someone.

3 – Though we judge first impressions universally on warmth and competency, what goes for warm and competent is judged differently across cultures. What is judged as warm in Brazil is not the same as in Berlin. The way you build authority in Tokyo is not the same as in Toronto. Again, the only way to learn how things work in the culture you’re in is by observation, talking to people and experimenting.

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I'm a Norwegian coach, writer and trainer currently living in Denmark. I've lived in France, Lebanon, Dubai, Japan, US, Switzerland, UK....the last 15 years. I've studied, worked, done business, published newspapers, had my own business, managed rock musicians and more while being an expat. And of course, I'm still being an expat.

The last 4 years I've helped individuals, private clients and professionals get clearer on their personal presence, how they present themselves, how they are seen. I help people stand out and be seen, online and in person.

I work a lot with expats that try to be seen, make friends, be promoted etc, in the new culture. I also work with expats that needs to do business in different cultures, and how things like for example an understanding of body language, the anatomy of first impressions, cross cultural communication norms etc.

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